Not that it needs my help to promote it, but Roger Ebert’s new site is up, and it’s awesome, since it features Ebert’s film reviews going back to 1967, as well as his various other writings on film. I’ve personally been using Ebert’s previous site for research and enjoyment for a while now — I often bounce my own film opinions off of his to see if I’m missing something (or, alternately, if he’s missing something) — and this new site is that much more useful to me.
I don’t think I’ve made any secret that I consider Ebert to be one of the best film criticism writers; he’s often maligned as shallow by the people who only know him from the “thumbs up!” rubric promoted by the various Siskel & Ebert shows and now on his current show with Richard Roeper (speaking of shallow film criticism), but these people need to actually read Ebert’s reviews, through which three things become apparent: One, Ebert is very smart; Two, Ebert knows film; Three, Ebert realizes that the best way to review is a film is to talk across to moviegoers, not down. Ebert is a film geek who can speak the language of normal people. He’s a fine model for writing popular film reviews.
Which is not to say he’s always right. Ebert can be as clueless about a clever film as anyone, and he’s a sucker for pretty lights and cool design. In the former case, this is what caused him to give Fast Times at Ridgemont High a one-star review; in the latter case, it’s what caused him to declare Dark City the best film of its year. Dark City’s a fine film, but it definitely ain’t “movie of the year” material. But in both of these cases (and by in large in his reviews in general) reading Ebert’s review lets you understand why he thinks like he does; you don’t have to agree, but you understand where he comes from. That’s good criticism.
One of the sad tragedies of film criticism in newspapers is that much of the criticism is done by people who can’t write well and don’t have a point of view, i.e., the review is useless as a piece of criticism, and as an entertaining piece of writing. The really excellent newspaper critics can be counted on two hands (two of my picks would be Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post and Elvis Mitchell, late of the New York Times, although rumor has it he may go over to the dark side, which is to say, film production), and after them there is a regrettably sharp drop in quality; the gap between the first tier of newspaper film critics and the second is abysmal.
This means, alas, that chances are good that your local film critic is pretty bad. Do yourself a favor and check out Ebert in a form unrelated to TV. Whether you agree with him or not, it’ll show you what good newspaper writing about film can be.